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Erin Pearson
August 3, 2020

The Filmmaker's Guide to a Script Breakdown

When taking a film from conception to production, one of the most integral steps to having a smooth-running set for film and television is the script breakdown summary - also known as a script breakdown report.

Breaking down a script helps you create a budget and shooting schedule. It helps with call sheets, day-in-day-out, daily breakdowns. A script breakdown helps:

Keep accurate count of how many actors you need, including background actors.
Give you an idea of the size crew you need Describe what type of crew you need, such as animal handlers, gun handlers, explosive experts, etc. Give your production team keep track of what has and hasn't yet been filmed.

There are two ways to break down a script: manually or by using breakdown software like Movie Magic, Studiobinder, Yamdu, or Celtx. I would highly recommend using a script breakdown software. There are many affordable options, even for the ultra low budget film project.

Step-By-Step Way to Breakdown a Script

First, the Line Producer usually reads the script in its entirety. You don't have to do it this way; you can just jump into the breakdowns but move slowly to make sure you don't miss anything.

Every detail is essential. The Line Producer must have the ability to imagine each scene practically. For example, if the scene description is protagonist on the side of the road with a flat tire, you must understand what pieces are in the scene and detail it. It is not your opportunity to add your flair for drama; this is practical imagination time. In our example, with the flat tire, we might need:

1) car

2) flat tire

3) jack stand

4) cell phone (if the protagonist is calling for help)

5) the estimated number of vehicles driving by based on the location, time of day, etc.

The second thing to learn and understand is that each page breaks down into eighths of a page. Let's say this scene takes up half of the page; you would mark it as 4/8.

This measurement helps identify how long it will take to film a particular scene. As a general rule of thumb, each eighth of the page takes about 20 minutes to shoot. Of course, some variables can add time like the actors struggling with lines, equipment malfunctions, what have you. But this is an estimate that can allow you to create a workable schedule for your shoot.

Third, each scene requires a slugline or a description of what happens in the scene, location, set, and time of day. You don't need to be particularly creative with your slugline; this is a quick description of what is happening so everyone on set can quickly get on the same page.

Fourth, as you are going through the script, you will probably find that the screenwriter has used more than one way to describe a location, ie. "Jane's House" vs. "Jane's home." You, the OCD organizer, need to change these formatting errors, so the location names are all the same.

Additionally, if you are reading through and find continuity errors, note them and send them back to the writer to fix them. When a screenwriter goes through and does X amount of edits over a few months or years, in many cases, things fall through the cracks and get forgotten. If you find them in your meticulous walkthrough, run it up the flagpole and get it fixed.

Your breakdown software will prompt you to enter in all of this information:

Sheet - indicates the breakdown sheet number. Typically one scene per sheet.

Scene(s) - indicates which scene you are detailing. You can simply write in the scene headers.

Int/Ext - details whether the scene is interior, exterior, or interior/exterior.

Set - the set you are shooting at, ie. "Jill's room," "Mama's kitchen," etc. You will usually find the set in the scene heading of each stage in the script.

Day/Night - indicates what time of day the scene is in, also located in the scene heading in the script.

Page(s) - written in eighths. Pages help with quickly locating the scene in a script. Pages help estimate how long it will take to shoot the scene. One page is roughly 45 seconds to one minute of screen time.

Synopsis - write a brief description of what is happening in the scene.

Script page - what page of the script are you breaking down? This will help you and others find the page in the coordinating script. Remember, as new versions of the script come out, this will change.

Script day - what consecutive day of the script are you breaking down?

Sequence - tells what part of the story you are currently in, such as; "Intro," "Jenna and Dave Romance," "The First Break-up," etc. This can be very helpful to know what items, such as wardrobe, or make-up, are going to be in this scene. Some software even allows you to attach items to sequences or locations, so you don't have to remember them every time, but instead, they will automatically show up.

Location - refers to the physical location of the shoot, the address. Oftentimes, this is not known when you do your first run-through of the scene breakdowns and will need to be added in later. It is also possible to have one "Set" in multiple locations. Attaching this to a breakdown can be very important.

Estimated time - estimates shooting time. Times can be difficult to estimate, but if you pay attention to the scene- Is there a lot of action? How many 1/8's of a page is the scene? Is there a lot of movement? How many actors are there? These factors can help you get a grasp on this. If it is a one-actor scene with no dialogue or little dialog, it can be as quick as 10-20min, but a scene the same length with many people talking can take much more time- probably 10-20 min per speaking character- due to the fact you need to get coverage on each of them.

Comments - add in comments that might be helpful! Comments can be an excellent place to add your thoughts on how you arrived at certain conclusions. Comments can also be a smart spot for instructions you want to remember or to communicate with others.

Cast members - detail the cast members mentioned in the scene. A cast member is usually someone who speaks at some point during the film. Occasionally, you'll have a film with a cast member or character who doesn't speak- like a baby or a mime, but they are still an important piece of the story puzzle. Talk about Character numbers and how you arrive at them.

Background Actors - estimate the number of background actors that will be in the scene. Think about not only the scene but the shots. If you are going to do a wide shot that moves from room to room in a party, you will need many times more background actors than if you were doing a few closeups at the same party sequence. Get as many actors as you need to make a convincing shot.

Stunts - detail the stunts that will take place in the scene. Stunts require extra personnel like stunt coordinators, stunt doubles, etc. At this point, you can either note the stunt and pass it off to the stunt coordinator to detail or you can note each element needed for the stunt- like a crash pad, for example.

Vehicles - detail any vehicles mentioned in the scene or estimate how many there are in the background. This category is specifically for "picture vehicles" (vehicles that are used in the scene), not cast and crew transportation. For these types of elements, it is good to name the items specifically. If it is a Blue Ford of the lead character, name it "Jane's Blue Ford," so you can easily spot it in the breakdown and remember to add it when needed.

Props - Detail props used in the scene. This one can be a little bit tricky. For example, if your character has glasses, that could be seen as a "wardrobe" detail- unless the character uses the glasses, i.e., fiddles with them take them on or off, leaves them on the end table, etc. If the character uses the glasses, even once, as a prop, they will forever belong to the prop department rather than the wardrobe. This differentiation helps to keep things from getting misplaced. What is considered to be a prop is somewhat discretionary, but it is generally accepted that if the character interacts with the object (in the script), it belongs to the prop department. The same thing as above, be sure to be specific, if it belongs to a character, itemize it and name it correctly.

Special effects - effects that can be achieved while on set like rain, fire, explosions or squibbs. Whatever is done live on set is a special effect. If it is done is post- it's a visual effect. In an action scene, it can be easy to miss items, so be specific. Is there breakaway glass? Are there squibs? Are we going to need atmosphere smoke for the scene? Really think through each item. Call up an SFX guy and get their opinion so you can be accurate on the day- and for the budget!

Wardrobe - if there are details about the wardrobe mentioned in the script, write them here. This is not a place for your creative interpretation—just practical application. If your extras are soldiers or whatever, do not forget to list those uniforms and the number of extras that will need it.

Makeup/hair - are there any specific directions or unusual items required like prosthetics or wounds?

Animals - detail specifics of any animals mentioned in the scene. (Don't work with cats, they will take up your entire day.)

Animal Wrangler - if there are animals, what type of animal wrangler do you need?

Music - Not meant for a soundtrack. This category is for live music mentioned in the script. Is your character playing in a band? Are they at a concert? Are they listening to music in the car or while they work out? Paying for rights to music can be quite costly. If your production can try to find royalty-free music, that would save a lot of time and money.

In the case of live music (concert, character's band is playing), the scene is usually briefly mentioned in the script- maybe one or two lines describing what is happening, "The band plays a song on stage."

Obviously, the time that it takes to shoot this scene won't be reflected in the scene breakdown since this one-line description barely even takes up an eighth of a page.

Get in contact with the scriptwriter and ask them to detail the scene. They can add the lyrics in place of the dialogue, and they can share what type of shots they'd like to see in the scene descriptions.

This will help you get a more accurate time frame and breakdown of what needs to be in the scene; special lighting, microphones, instruments, crowd size, speakers, amps, etc.

Sound - Did someone knock on the door or a car backfire? Write down the sounds mentioned in the scene. This is very common for phone calls or texts in films.

Set dressing - Keep track of what appears in each set. If it's a living room and a lazy boy is mentioned in the first description, then the lazy boy will be there throughout the film, so it must be on the list for every scene in that location. Sometimes things are mentioned in later scenes that should be in the set throughout, i.e. the coffee table was mentioned the third time we were in the living room location, so you must go back to the previous 2 times we were in that location and update them to have the coffee table present.

Greenery - trees, plants, shrubs, vines. Though oftentimes considered part of the set dressing, these items require special care, so they are in their own category on most breakdown software.

Special Equipment - What special equipment is needed to get the shot? Cranes, forklifts, or cherry pickers, being some of the more common items. If you are shooting a night scene outside and you need a light high enough to mimic the moon, you will, most likely, need a cherry picker to lift the light.

Security - Do your actors require special security? Does the location require special security? Do your props and camera equipment require security? If you are on location, shooting for multiple days and have highly expensive equipment staying on-site, you may want to consider security to keep the items safe.

Additional labor - this category is for unusual personnel. Currently, specially qualified COVID-19 staff are required to ensure cast and crew are following safe set protocols.

Visual Effects - also referred to as optical effects. What, if any, visual effects are mentioned?

Mechanical Effects - are you using robots or other animatronics on your set? Detail them in this category.

Miscellaneous - are these weird things that you aren't quite sure how to categorize? Write these items at this location.

Notes - production can leave special notes for themselves in this category.

Costumes - if your script runs multiple script days, your characters will, likely, change clothes. To indicate this, you may choose to write: Character name, day [1], outfit [1].

You can leave this element up to your wardrobe department unless a specific or unusual item is requested that may be hard to find. Additionally, if an outfit is scheduled to be ruined in the scene, ripped jeans, spilled drinks, buttons pop off, etc., request multiples of that item.

Livestock - are horses, goats, pigs, sheep, cows, etc. mentioned? List them here.

Animal Handler - small animals that could be brought to set in a crate like, cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, etc.

Optical FX - also referred to as visual effects. Visual effects are done in post-production.

Organizational Tips

When doing a manual breakdown, it is recommended that an easy way to organize yourself is with different colored highlighters when you do your read-through. Color highlighters are not necessary but still an option if you are using breakdown software. Marks on the script are merely an organizational tool for you, personally, to use. Marks are not an industry standard. Some may even prefer to underline, circle, or place asterisks rather than highlight. However, you can stay organized is the way you ought to proceed.

A possible script breakdown color-coding format could look like this:

  1. CAST: Red/Any speaking actor.

  2. STUNTS: Orange/Any stunt, or a stunt double, or stunt coordinator.

  3. EXTRA (SILENT): Yellow/Any extra person needed to perform but has no lines.

  4. EXTRA (ATMOSPHERE): Green/ Any extra person or group of persons needed for the background.

  5. SPECIAL EFFECTS: Blue/ Any special effect required.

  6. PROPS: Purple/ All objects necessary to the scenes, or used by an actor.

  7. VEHICLES AND ANIMALS: Pink/ Any cars, and animals, or an animal trainer.

  8. SOUND EFFECTS OR MUSIC: Brown/ Sounds or music equipment specific use on set. N

  9. WARDROBE/COSTUME: Specific collection of costumes needed for the production.

  10. MAKE-UP AND HAIRDRESSING: Asterisk/Any make-up or hair care needed.

  11. SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: Box/ If a scene requires the use of uncommon equipment, (e.g., crane, underwater camera).

  12. PRODUCTION NOTES: _ Underline (_)/ For specific instructions that don't fall under yet above.

It's vital that you are thorough and don't miss any scenes when creating the breakdown. Failing to include any scene on the script breakdown will create problems later on. The shooting schedule will be missing scenes, and the film budget will be off. People and props won't be where they need to be, and- if it gets far enough into production without anyone noticing it's missing, the editor will be missing the scene entirely. You'll have to schedule a re-shoot, costing so much time and money.

What's Next?

Once you get the script breakdowns done, organize your stripboard (production board) into a schedule. Sometimes this is the Line Producer's job; sometimes, it's the job of the 1st ad (Assistant Director), Director, Director of Photography, or a combination of people detailing shot lists and storyboards before a complete schedule can determine the timing.

They describe how long scenes will take to shoot, what time of day they're shooting, what the locations are, and then schedule shoot days accordingly.

The average number of pages you should plan to get through in a day is 5. Scheduling production takes a lot of time to coordinate according to location and daylight.

Some breakdown software also has production scheduling software that makes this job a lot easier.

Movie Magic Budgeting and Movie Magic Scheduling, for example, color codes the schedule based on the information you feed it from the breakdown.

Some other film scheduling software and film production software options are Gorilla Scheduling, Celtx, Final Draft (which is known as the industry standard for screenwriting software because it is such a massive tool for all things preproduction) and Assemble.

Overall, script breakdowns aren't a difficult thing to learn, but they are time consuming and meticulous. If you don't have the patience to sit and do them well, hire it out. It's better to get it done right the first time around than to be unprepared during your shoot.

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